Metro-East News

Seven Collinsville department heads repaid credit card purchases over four-year period

Collinsville City Hall, 125 S. Center St.
Collinsville City Hall, 125 S. Center St. acortes@bnd.com

Seven city employees in four years made purchases on city-issued credit cards that were later reimbursed, including charges for meals, a car battery and a hotel room, according to documents obtained by the News-Democrat.

The BND reviewed financial records released under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act for a total of 19 department heads who held credit cards between January 2012 and July 2015.

One of those card holders, former city clerk and director of operations Cheryl Brombolich, has stated it was “an accepted practice” for employees to charge personal purchases to city credit cards.

The BND reported Feb. 20 that Brombolich, now a city councilwoman, used city credit cards and tax-free city accounts for more than $3,300 in personal purchases that she later repaid to the city. She resigned as clerk and operations director in September 2014 and successfully ran for city council in the April 2015 election.

Brombolich has said publicly she was “one of many” employees who had a personal charge on a city-issued card — despite the practice being a violation of city policy — but that no one else was disciplined for it but her.

In a statement to the News-Democrat, Brombolich said that because she criticized her boss, former City Manager Scott Williams, he compiled documents related to her personal use of the cards and tax-free accounts in order to discredit her and force her to resign as a city employee. Williams has declined to comment on this subject.

Brombolich said other city employees were “engaging in more egregious misuse of credit cards than what I did,” and accused Williams of protecting other employees while targeting her. The 2012-15 time frame the BND reviewed covers Williams’ tenure as city manager.

Financial documents show that during that time, these current and former employees reimbursed the city for credit card purchases: Brombolich; Leah Joyce, TIF director; Dennis Kress, public works director; Mark Emert, former fire chief; Rod Cheatham, former streets director; Erika Kennett, former economic development director, and Paul Mann, former economic development director prior to Kennett.

Besides Brombolich, who previously submitted a statement, Emert, Kennett and Kress responded to a request for comment from the BND. In general, they said they believed they were following city policy at the time the purchases were made with city cards. Their charges, which were later reimbursed, ranged from registration fees for a spouse to attend conferences, flowers for a city employee and cables for a city-issued iPad and iPhone.

Collinsville Finance Director Tamara Ammann declined to comment for this story, but previously spoke to reporters about city credit card holders in November. Ammann said at that time personal charges happened “rarely.”

“Because if it were routine, they’d have their card taken away because it’s against policy,” Ammann said in an earlier interview. The city’s policy, which Ammann wrote, states the personal use of a city card is “strictly prohibited.”

Current employees’ reimbursements

City Councilwoman Brombolich, along with Joyce and Kress, made multiple purchases that they later repaid to the city, the financial documents provided by the city show.

All three of Kress’ reimbursements, which total $60, were for registration fees for his wife to attend the American Water Works Association’s annual conferences with him over three years. Kress wrote in response to submitted questions that the online registration process does not accommodate the use of two different credit cards for payment.

He said he followed the city’s policy for attending conferences by using his city card to register and by reimbursing the city for the guest portion of the registration fee. Kress said he has never been reprimanded for anything in his 23 years with the city.

“It is important to know that the city receives an annual rebate from the credit card company based on expenditures, and we are encouraged to use the city cards for city-related expenditures rather than (be) reimbursed to maximize the rebate back to the city,” Kress wrote.

Joyce, whose three reimbursements total $39, did not respond to a request for comment. Her purchases took place at Meehan’s IGA in 2012, and more recently at Ruby Tuesday restaurant in 2015.

Documents released by the city show Joyce bought a meal and paid 20 percent gratuity at Ruby Tuesday. Receipts detailing what was purchased from Meehan’s were not available, but city financial documents state the reimbursement in this case was for “personal charges.”

Brombolich made a total of 20 personal purchases to city credit cards or tax-free accounts going back to 2004. Two of her credit card purchases occurred during the four-year time frame of 2012-15.

In 2013, she purchased a personal item from Dollar General while picking up light bulbs and envelopes for the city. The documents show Brombolich reimbursed the city for the $2.50 personal item, as well as the sales tax that should not have been included for the city-related items she purchased in the same transaction.

Brombolich also held a Holiday Inn hotel reservation with her city card in 2014 during a personal trip with her daughter’s softball team.

“I was not, am not, and will never be entitled to use public resources for my personal benefit. However, I did acknowledge my error in using the city credit card for holding the hotel room. I did not intend for the room to be charged to the card when I used it to hold the room,” Brombolich wrote in response to questions submitted by the BND last month. “Regardless, this bill was paid by me, therefore there was no financial loss to the city.”

I was not, am not, and will never be entitled to use public resources for my personal benefit. However, I did acknowledge my error in using the city credit card for holding the hotel room. I did not intend for the room to be charged to the card when I used it to hold the room. Regardless, this bill was paid by me, therefore there was no financial loss to the city.

Cheryl Brombolich, Collinsville City Councilwoman

After Brombolich sent an email explaining that she had charged the hotel room to her city credit card, which she said was a mistake, she was issued a written reprimand and subsequently placed on administrative leave while Williams decided whether to fire her.

“I was put on leave for this issue and ultimately forced to resign. Others who had completed the same activity were neither reprimanded nor put on leave nor forced to resign,” Brombolich told the BND.

Williams’ reprimand over the hotel reservation was the second time Brombolich had been warned about the practice of using city cards and accounts for personal purchases, according to city documents. While Brombolich was on leave, she pleaded with Ammann via text messages not to tell Williams about a personal FedEx charge that showed up on a delinquent city account, but later wrote she wanted to be the one to tell Williams about it.

Brombolich announced her resignation four days after the text message conversation with Ammann.

City Councilwoman Nancy Moss said that there are differences between Brombolich and other employees who reimbursed the city.

“The city has strong written policies concerning personal use of city credit cards. In the last few years, there have been few instances of this. When it has happened, most employees have self reported it and paid for the item,” Moss wrote. “If warranted, they received consistent and appropriate discipline.

“In the circumstances surrounding her departure, Mrs. Brombolich did not report or pay for her personal purchases; the bills were overdue and the city was delinquent on the accounts,” she said.

Former employees’ reimbursements

Of the former employees who made personal purchases on their city credit cards that were later reimbursed, Cheatham had the most with 10, while Emert, Kennett and Mann each charged one purchase that was repaid.

Cheatham declined to comment for this story, but according to financial documents, he told the Finance Department he mistakenly used the wrong credit card for five of the purchases. They included purchases at Walgreens in 2012, Don’s Hardware in 2013, and at Schnucks, Shop ‘n Save and Smoke Pit BBQ on the same day in 2014.

When asked about Cheatham’s explanation, Ammann previously said, “That doesn’t surprise me.” She clarified that she didn’t know “of any times I felt like Rod was making fraudulent purchases.”

Regarding three of Cheathman’s purchases from 2014 at Fifth Quarter, a former Collinsville bar and restaurant, and at The Sandwich Shop, another Collinsville restaurant, Ammann said those were likely business lunches that Williams asked Cheatham to repay.

Ammann said Williams did not approve of city employees meeting to talk about city business over a meal that would be charged to a city credit card and later paid by taxpayers.

“It’s not illegal. It’s not even a bad business practice,” Ammann said, but Williams didn’t like it. There was no specific policy against it, according to Ammann. Instead, an email directive was likely sent to employees with city-issued credit cards, she said.

Personal use of a City Purchasing Card is strictly prohibited. Purchases will be monitored and Purchasing Cards may be rescinded at any time, according to the Collinsville purchasing card policy that employees sign.

Ammann said those purchases “weren’t so much personal purchases as they were a conflict of policy” because the city manager directed employees to use their cards in a way that was different than what had previously been allowed.

The largest of Cheatham’s purchases was $182 at O’Reilly Auto Parts for a car battery for a 2008 Mercedes-Benz, which was not a city vehicle. He bought the battery in July 2014.

Emert, the former Collinsville fire chief, reimbursed one purchase he made on a city credit card for $26. After a city employee helped produce a 25-minute video for the Fire Department’s 140th anniversary in 2012, Emert said he bought roses on his city card for her to show his appreciation.

“I thought she did an excellent job, and I wanted to do something nice for her; instead of buying her a plaque, I bought flowers for her,” Emert said in a recent phone interview. “I didn’t realize at the time that was something I wasn’t supposed to do.”

The city’s former economic development directors, Kennett and Mann, each reimbursed one purchase, the records show.

In June 2014, Kennett bought five charging cables for her city-issued iPad and iPhone from Amazon for $69. Ammann emailed Kennett in September, instructing her to reimburse $55 of that charge.

Kennett wrote in response to questions submitted by the BND that she would not characterize this purchase as a personal charge because the cables were purchased “solely for the use with devices issued to me by the city.

“However, the city manager did not think I needed as many cables as I purchased, so I reimbursed the city for a portion of the cables upon his direction,” Kennett wrote.

It is important to know that the city receives an annual rebate from the credit card company based on expenditures and we are encouraged to use the city cards for city-related expenditures rather than (be) reimbursed to maximize the rebate back to the city.

Dennis Kress, public works director

Mann’s reimbursement was for a $20 health spa charge at the Flamingo Hotel while he was on a city trip for the International Council of Shopping Centers Conference in Las Vegas in 2012. Documents show Mann called the charge to the attention of the Finance Department.

“...Will provide personal check for this item when I turn in travel expense report,” Mann wrote on the hotel receipt. He did not respond to a recent request for comment.

Ammann, in the earlier interview, said the Finance Department both catches questionable purchases on city credit cards and hears from city employees about them.

“Sometimes, people catch it before we’ve even got the bill,” she said, and they reimburse the city.

Lexi Cortes: 618-239-2528, @lexicortes

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